When Abigail Disney, philanthropist and grand-niece of Walt Disney, dared the audience at a recent fundraising event to stretch their giving, she was prepared to put her money where her mouth was. “I want you to give until it hurts,” she said, promising to match the amount – up to $1m – if they rose to her challenge.

Three months later, more than $2.6m had been raised for The New York Women’s Foundation and other causes, including Disney’s pledge and a further $1m gift from an anonymous donor.

While Disney’s donation was not the first of that magnitude pledged by a woman, to those in the inner circle of women’s philanthropy it was evidence of a new era.

“Women are now giving at unprecedented levels . . . We are in the middle of a revolution of consciousness,” says Helen LaKelly Hunt, founder and president of The Sister Fund, a private women’s fund dedicated to empowering women and girls. “Women’s funds are bringing women out of the shadows and making visible women’s compassion and financial clout.”

In 1997 there were 50 women’s funds making grants of just less than $13m a year, with yearly contributions of $30m, according to the Women’s Funding Network, a global network of 120 funds. By 2005 there were 120 women’s funds worldwide making grants of close to $50m a year and receiving yearly contributions of more than $106m.

Women have never been so aware of their own power to force social change. Armed with greater independence and know-how, they are writing bigger cheques and giving in bigger numbers to women’s organisations.

“The women’s movement has moved a ton of different issues forward on absolutely no money. We got the vote – probably the hardest thing you can get when you don’t have it – with pretty much no money. We got domestic violence taken seriously . . . we got microfinance on the agenda,” Disney says.

“Now we have a group of women who have either earned or inherited huge amounts of money and for the first time they are understanding that they can take control of that, that they can move it in large amounts, so my question is: what can we do with money, given that we accomplished so much without?”*

Women’s funds – public charities that give specifically to women and girls and whose mission is to bring their leadership forward in all aspects of society – have grown in popularity and size as women have taken control of their wealth, whether it is earned, inherited or acquired through marriage.

Women will also soon have greater resources to give. Because they generally outlive men, women are poised to inherit part of an estimated $41,000bn that will transfer to their children in the largest ever inter-generational shift of money. Many daughters – potential future female philanthropists – will be heirs. The hope is that some of those charitable dollars will find their way to women’s funds, whose grantees cover a range of issues, including microfinance, literacy and legal representation for sex workers.

Cynthia Schmae, WFN’s chief operations officer, says women’s funds play the role of “philanthropic investment adviser”.

“A women’s fund is the trusted source you would depend on to do a lot of the groundwork. But it doesn’t end there: the fund has a system in place to evaluate the impact and offer feedback,” she says.

WFN’s members have raised more than $450m over two decades, much of it to support development efforts led by and benefiting women round the world.

Another way to think about a women’s fund, says Elaine Maly, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee, is as “a giant giving circle” or an investment club where individuals pool their resources. But instead of buying stocks or bonds, members make grants to community organisations.**

Ana Oliveira, president and chief executive of NYWF, says women’s philanthropy “is the silent giant that is waking up. We just have to make sure it orients to issues that are underfunded – and women’s issues are very underfunded.”

Indeed, according to Foundation Center, which tracks private foundation giving trends, only 6.4 per cent of grants went to women and girls in 2005. (The sample is based on grants of $10,000 or more.)

Sara Gould, president and chief executive of the Ms Foundation for Women, says that for democracy to thrive, resources need to be focused on women.

“In the beginning we made an equity argument: we are half [the] population, but we’re not getting half [the] resources. That’s not what motivates my work now,” she says.

“Yes, we have made great strides towards equality but women still carry the lion’s share of the burden for caring for children and the elderly . . . To strengthen democracy, bring in women.”

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, entitled “Wretched of the Earth”, Nicholas Kristof said one smart way to fight poverty was to empower women. For example, by educating girls, giving daughters legal rights to inheritance and promoting banks that give women control over the accounts.

“Once mothers control family spending, rather than fathers, family resources are invested more productively and some families can rise out of poverty very quickly. This makes the fight for gender equality in the developing world not only a moral imperative but also an econ­omic one,” he wrote.

One of the challenges facing women’s funds is how to take funding to scale. Gould says: “Our endowment is about $28m; it should be $250m or more for us to be working on the mission we have. Why isn’t it $250m?

“Sexism is a barrier. There are donors and donor institutions that say women’s funds don’t have capacity, that they can’t absorb the funding.”

She points out that Warren Buffett didn’t say that about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “There is an assumption being made there about women and capacities,” she says.

But at the same time that many women’s funds are wrestling with questions of scale, more women are making larger gifts. “They are bringing this million-dollar language into the landscape,” says Gould. But she adds: “The majority of gifts that women give could be much larger.”

LaKelly Hunt and her sister Swanee Hunt, heirs to the Hunt Oil fortune and long-time donors to women’s funds, have been instrumental in drawing attention to the power of million-dollar-plus gifts and a buzz is emerging in women’s philanthropy circles.

“Women who have been funding women’s funds at the $1m level are trailblazers and visionaries,” says LaKelly Hunt, who helped found NYWF and the Dallas Women’s Foundation. “We think we are creating a contagion.”

Maly, of the Women’s Fund of Greater Milwaukee, says large gifts embolden other women. “We are going to see more million-dollar gifts and that will set the tone to make women a little bolder about their giving than perhaps they have been because that example is so important,” she says.

Disney believes the women’s funding movement is on the cusp of a new era. “If we put together all this extraordinary new influx of money and women who understand the power of saying the word ‘million’ once in a while, or, God forbid, even maybe ‘billion’ some day; if we can find a way to weave their interests and their style and their methods together with this groundswell, what an interesting new historical moment we might be at,” she says.

Women’s funds have come a long way since Gloria Steinem created the Ms Foundation for Women, the first women’s fund, in 1972. Today the education, elevation and enfranchisement of their own sex is at the forefront of women’s philanthropy.

“More than 80 per cent of women’s funds grants throughout the world go to the women and girls in greatest need: women and girls compromised by poverty, human rights abuse and violence. It goes to women and girls who are forging real solutions to their situations,” LaKelly Hunt told the audience at NYWF’s fundraising breakfast. “Real change is happening in women’s funds.”

Tuesday: part two – Women on the ground: Life after Hurricane Katrina

*See part three of the series for a full story on Disney
**For more on giving circles, see part five

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